SPOKANE — A Palisades man convicted of child molestation two years ago has won a new trial, in what the Court of Appeals calls a case of “serious prosecutorial misconduct” by the Douglas County Prosecutor’s Office.
The decision overturns the conviction of 71-year-old James William Cook Sr., who’s been imprisoned since 2019, serving a 14-year sentence for two counts of first-degree child molestation and three counts in the second degree. The Spokane higher court agreed with Cook’s claim that deputy county prosecutor N. Smith Hagopian made improper arguments during trial, disparaged the defense counsel, and used Cook’s refusal to answer police questions during the investigation to suggest his guilt to the jury.
Appellate Judge Robert Lawrence-Berrey wrote for the three-judge panel, “It is an understatement to say that Cook did not receive a fair trial.”
Douglas County deputies arrested Cook in October 2018 after disclosures from two children, who said he molested them multiple times. Hagopian joined the prosecutor’s office in September 2019, after a long career in defense and civil private practice in Chelan and Douglas counties.
The Douglas County jury convicted Cook in November 2019, after a two-day trial. Superior Court Judge Brian Huber sentenced him to 175 months in prison, which he’s been serving at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.
In the trial, the appellate ruling said, Hagopian committed misconduct by having Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective Tim Scott “clearly imply to the jury he believed Cook’s accusers.” He also elicited testimony from a forensic examiner that children who disclose sexual abuse are truthful, which “substantially impacted Cook’s right to a fair trial.”
When Cook took the stand, Hagopian asked him to speculate on why his accusers might lie. The appellate court wrote that asking such a question is “contrary to the prosecutor’s duty to seek convictions based only on probative evidence.” At multiple points, Hagopian emphasized Cook’s refusal to answer Scott’s questions during the investigation.
In closing arguments, Hagopian said he personally believed one of the victims’ statements, which Lawrence-Berrey wrote is “improper vouching.” He also contrasted the victim interview done by Cook’s defense attorneys with those done by the forensic investigator, telling the jury, “The defense counsel interview is not looking for the truth, because that’s not what defense lawyers need to know to do their ethical duty to represent their client.”
“By saying this, the prosecutor said to the jury it should not believe defense counsel because his ethics do not constrain him to the truth,” Lawrence-Berrey wrote in the appellate ruling.
The appellate decision orders Douglas County Superior Court to retry Cook on the five counts for which he was convicted. The prosecutor’s office has the option to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.